A few years ago, I was playing basketball with a friend, but it was very different from the way most people play basketball. We called it “Basketball Heaven Style.” We had certain unusual rules:
- One could not take advantage of the other’s weakness in scoring a basket. If a weakness was exposed, play was halted, and instruction was offered on how the weakness could be made stronger.
- If it was perceived that the defensive player did not give 100% on a given play, the one on offense would not accept the points of a made basket. Instead, the points were removed and play would resume with an agreement to play with increased and focused intensity.
- Points only counted when both players could say that they gave 100% on the play. It had to be straight-up competition, strength against strength.
Is that gospel-focused competition? I suppose the game of basketball with those rules would be one way to engage in gospel-focused competition, but I am certain that it could be debated by a room full of athlete-theologians. However, I want to offer an attempt at pointing this discussion in a direction. In this blog I propose that competition is gospel-focused when it is competition to the glory of God and in a Christ-like manner while seeking the good of your opponent.
There can be a tension in athletic competition for followers of Christ. On the one hand we have the purpose of competition. Much could be written about this, but let me attempt to reduce the purpose to a couple of statements:
- Competition encourages a player and/or team to develop and utilize their strengths and to implement a strategy that takes advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses, even exploiting those weaknesses, in order to gain a victory.
- Competition encourages a player and/or team to be fully conditioned and prepared to execute, with focused intensity, a plan, which is intended to bring victory by excelling or dominating an opponent.
On the other hand we have the call of discipleship. Consider these passages: Mark 10:35-45, John 13:1-17, Philippians 2:3-8, Matthew 23:11-12, and Galatians 5:13-26. You may read those passages (and many others) on your own, but each passage teaches that disciples are called to a radically different approach to life than the world in which we live. In other words, the gospel turns all activities in life upside down, often bringing a surprising twist to what it means to be a disciple in specific situations. Obviously the gospel does not prohibit us from living in this world in ways very similar to those who are not followers of Christ. In many respects, our lives will look much like our neighbors. Many of us will probably get married, buy a home or pay rent, go on vacations, work in a business of some type, put our kids in youth sports, mow our lawns, join adult recreation leagues, etc. And we will engage in athletic competition. However, as we live in this world, and more specifically for our purposes as we engage in athletic competition, we are not to be of this world. We are to be different. Well, how do we do that?
How can we take the call of discipleship found in these passages and integrate them with the purposes of competition that I set forth? The issue is not, ultimately, the activity of competition, but rather who we are, our person or attitude, as we compete. We engage competition as a follower of Christ. Let me revisit the purposes of competition I mentioned earlier:
- In competition followers of Christ should develop and utilize their strengths and implement a strategy that takes advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses, even exploiting those weaknesses, in order to gain a victory.
- In competition followers of Christ should be fully conditioned and prepared to execute, with focused intensity, a plan, which is intended to bring victory by excelling or dominating an opponent.
However, the attitude with which we accomplish these purposes of competition is one of “by love serve one another.” It is one that picks up an opponent knocked to the floor, offers a water bottle to a competitor, refuses to use certain language, acknowledges impressive performances or improvement from earlier contests. It is one, which rejoices when others receive awards or honors. It is one, which truly appreciates the difficulties of referees and umpires who are doing their best to make the correct call, especially amidst all of the cheating that regularly occurs in a contest. Furthermore, it is an attitude that actually desires the good of one’s opponent.
The attitude with which we accomplish these purposes of competition is one, which exhibits an earnest desire that our opponents learn from their mistakes/weaknesses and return to future contests as a better team so that we can have a better contest. We want to encourage our opponents to get better, and we want to get better. Why? Our goal is not wins/losses but rather engaging in competition to the glory of God and in a Christ-like manner while seeking the good of our opponent. With that as our goal, winning or losing can achieve our ultimate goal. God can be glorified in both winning and losing, and both can be accomplished in a Christ-like manner while seeking the good of your opponent. Does this mean that it does not matter who wins or loses? No. The goal of competition is, and will remain, winning. But winning and losing is never the ultimate goal in gospel-focused competition. The ultimate goal of gospel-focused competition is that it be to the glory of God and in a Christ-like manner while seeking the good of our opponent. We have an eternal perspective to competition as well as an internal perspective.
This commitment in no way negates competition; rather it reframes the words “may the best team win!” and changes them to “may the best team win, and may we all become better people because of this athletic contest conducted in a Christ-like manner to the glory of God.” We are for one another, including our opponents, but more importantly we are for God.
This commitment transforms our understanding of competition into a gospel-focused competition and hopefully provides a way forward in resolving the tension in us to be good athletes and faithful followers of Jesus. So, may God help us to engage in competition to his glory and in a Christ-like manner while seeking the good of our opponents.